What's an ad agency good for?

In a world where there are internal agencies and consultants getting into this space, what shape should the external ad agency assume? What requirements does it fulfil? The case for internal shops is obvious: the first reason is cost. The second is the real-time nature of the business: as we move from campaigns to conversations, there’s no place for giving and receiving a brief. For clients who rely on real-time marketing, it’s a sensible option.

But my view is that all big marketers will have an external agency. And agencies need to do three things to survive:

1. Speak the truth

Agencies still have or should have a certain objectivity and independence. W+K remains one of the agencies I admire because they retain independence and an independent point of view. They choose clients and say ‘this is good for you and this isn’t.’

2. To give brands a spiritual clarity

As the world gets more fragmented, and every touchpoint has to communicate, what unifies each of these is a vision and the brand’s point of view on life. It may not be just agencies doing it, but agencies have a certain environment and attract people to this business. The future of the agency is in doing what it was meant to do.

In a world getting more disoriented and with institutions like family, media and state, under threat, in some ways, brands are emerging as a community forming force. Apple has a high valuation for among other things, the purity that a Steve Jobs brought in. The ability to say no to certain things defines and clarifies a brand. And agencies are best placed to express that clarity. When Jobs returned, he called TBWA’s Lee Clow and said, “I want to get back to what made us, us.” ‘Think Different’ was an act of distilling that essence and giving it spiritual clarity. It takes a partnership and someone else to articulate this.

Through my life, I have, to use a mutual fund metaphor, found this power of compounding: you have to stay with some fundamentals and they create value in the long term. Of course in this day and age, the brand should actually be able to improve your life on a day to day basis; not build itself around some gyaan or myth about changing your life.

3. Finding the conception of a brand in a post-visual world, where everything is voice activated

The world moved from an oral tradition to the visual; a TVC used to make the brand for you. And then we moved to activation, digital etc. But with voice creeping up, how do you create a brand? If the only way you access a brand is via Siri or Alexa, what are you going to do? It’s especially important to figure this out since India is the highest voice search penetration country in the world. I don’t know how this will be done, currently.

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